An important folk ritualistic theatre of South Kanara is Bhoota worship, and the foremost feature of this theatre is its association with religion. This worship has a strong tradition and establishes a close relationship with the society and the history of South Kanara. And this relationship has many levels: social, cultural, political, judicial and medical. There are over 350 Bhoota worshipped in the region, though not in every village in the district. Each Bhoota has a specific identity by way of name, gender, place of origin, symbol, and habitation.
Perhaps originally a dance form, it must have emerged from the tradition of the Nalike community, who are known for their itinerant tradition of singing and dancing and who go from house to house for a small reward of a handful of grains. It was looked upon as a tribal technique of exorcising evil and ensuring good luck for the village. Dance forms like Aati-kalenja, Maadira nalike, Karangoolu and such can be cited as examples of such beliefs, to which we can trace the original features and inspirations of Bhoota worship.
Human life and society have always been dynamic, and Bhoota worship, closely bound by human life and social traditions, must be dynamic. Keeping this point in view, we have to examine the nature of Bhoota worship at two levels. At one level, we have the inner aspect of the Bhoota worship, which includes the singing of the Paaddana (the epic narrative of the Bhoota), make-up, dance, costumes, dialogue, feasting, and the creation of the overall ambience for the performance. These details are invariably compiled during the course of the worship. However, sometimes they may be carried out in a symbolic manner.
The second level is that of the external aspect of Bhoota worship. At this level, depending on the situation or exigencies, the duration of worship is extended or shortened. But this is also done in accordance with the ritualistic tradition: changing the shape and design of the costumes, increasing their numbers, selecting portions of the Paaddana for recitation, reducing the duration of the performance according to the desire of the organisers, these and other changes have been introduced over time. Thus, by adapting itself to the time and circumstances, Bhoota worship has retained the contemporaneity of its purpose, function, and significance. These changes haven’t changed its social relevance.
Though some consider Bhoota worship not as a theatre form but as entertainment, it is a ‘composite system’. It has functioned as an instrument for establishing a critical balance with the social, political and judicial systems of Tulunaadu. The dynamics of the social and political systems of Tulunaadu are reflected in the dynamics of Bhoota worship. The changes in the details of Bhoota worship and the materials used therein have always responded to social compulsions.
The society of the region is rooted in caste systems, which are quite distinct. People belonging to a particular caste or community develop a cultural identity that is reinforced by performances and rituals associated with the cycles of life and seasons. The culture developed by one community could be a non-culture to another community, a method by which different communities preserve and proclaim their identity. The concepts of ‘Madi – Mailige’ (Purity – Polluted), superiority – inferiority, civilised – uncivilised and so on, confirm the inter-community distinctions and community identities. Communities that are socially on the higher rungs appear as wholly ‘pure’, whereas those that are at the lowest are looked down upon as ‘impure’, and everyone in-between is classified into different gradations of impurity and purity.
Bhoota worship is especially intertwined with this kind of caste relationship, based on the concepts of superiority and inferiority. Paaddana, which are literary expressions of Bhoota worship, echo the pain and sighs of the suppressed classes in a caste-ridden society. In fact, the leitmotif of Paaddana is social conflict. These plaintive songs express the consequences of social changes and the meaning and objectives of the Paaddana. They express elements like class conflict, crime, exploitation, injustice, and repression suggestively. Their recital and the solemn context of Bhoota worship are meant to expose the cruelty and violence of history. In truth, what takes place in the ritual context is the apotheosis of humiliation, exploitation, and oppression. But even in this medium, which by means of its colour, dance, costume, and music achieves a cultural sublimation, it is possible to recognise the social inequalities that existed in the past and continue to plague the present. Hence, Bhoota worship has not merely remained a medium of entertainment. This becomes evident when we look at those communities that sustain Bhoota worship as a tradition. These communities have been, over centuries, bypassed by powerful cultures at the top and consigned to a marginal existence. Through this medium, they have been complaining about the injustice they have suffered.
The different actions of the Bhoota impersonator in the performance – situations like raising exaggerated shouts, swallowing fire, wounding himself with the sword, and walking on the heap of embers are not significant merely at the individual level; they acquire a broader meaning, and they communicate with different castes. Though the Bhoota may appear to be a glorified projection of an individual’s personality, in reality, we find that an individual here is the spokesman of the community, expressing his protest against the various manifestations of social oppression.
In Bhoota worship, we find an expression of the collective voice of society. So long as the caste system flourishes in the Tuluva region and forms of inequality persist, Bhoota worship is likely to retain its dynamic relationship with the society that it disapproves of.
An important question deserves our consideration here. Though we can discern expressions of protest against social injustice and exploitation in the Paaddana and a few other aspects of Bhoota worship, how does it function against their values as opposed to life affirmation? To state briefly, in Bhoota worship, such protests and rebellions get nullified in reality, though in the brief world of illusion created by this theatre, they seem to materialise. While the performance lasts the untouchable in real life becomes the cynosure of all eyes, the impurity of existence gets sublimated into purity, the representative of the exploited community in real life plays the master in impersonation, and the ‘hunger’ of the day is satiated during the night. Thus, protest takes place when time, place, individuals, and situations go into a contrived world of illusion. But the protest gets nullified in the world of reality. Under this situation, it seems impossible that a revolution would ever occur against economic injustice or caste distinctions. The revolutionary and radical forces seem to operate only within the limits of the illusory world created between the moments of reality. From this point of view, the relationship between Bhoota worship and a specific social system becomes evident. It looks as though the community's Bhoota worship is assured. Even if the caste system were to disappear, Bhoota worship would not lose its relevance. It would still retain its power to suggest exploitation and injustice resulting from some other cause. It would also flourish so long as it retains its political and administrative power and judicial and therapeutic functions.
A temporary realm, which is time-space specific, is created for the ritual performance of a Bhoota; this illusionary and temporal realm is a valuable concept to understand the Bhoota performance.
The performance of the Bhoota impersonation is designed to demonstrate and re-enact the whole gamut of the tragedy which the epic represents. It creates a new realm of reality between the invisible world the Bhoota inhabit and the mundane world of present society. This new realm is a temporary creation; it is time and location-specific. It is here that they unburden their anger, anguish, and frustration; it is also here that they advertise their superhuman powers in the dramatic context provided for the purpose.
The Bhoota impersonator also has to follow certain stipulated modes of dramatic performance. His screams and haughty addresses to his patron or landlord, the imprecations he hurls, and the torch he brandishes or stabs himself with are meant to produce a profound theatrical effect. The whole theatrical performance in this special realm temporarily reverses the equation between the oppressor and the oppressed. But such a reversal is attributed only to a special moment created for the purpose, forming the proverbial exception that proves the rule. This world of a temporary inversion of the social equation is legitimised not merely by its supposedly magical powers but also by the social participation, particularly of its upper-caste members. The ritualistic prescriptions convey the idea that the anger produced by social injustice could be handled by providing a safety valve and by creating a mechanism of theatrical atonement. As this belief is transmitted from generation to generation, the cultural aspect of Bhoota worship acquires continuity.
The artists who belong to the scheduled caste are considered the real owners of this tradition. They have been complaining against the exploitation they have suffered in particular and against society at large. This is artistically expressed through the hard facial and costume colours, mask, and weapons. One cannot restrict or limit the protest to the artists only. It should be referred to and understood in a larger social context. To some extent, the artistic representation of their anger might have emancipated the oppressed class. At this point, we cannot ignore the role of modern education, social reforms, and caste organisation. The progressive movements in the region by the public and private sectors have immensely helped in the process of social and economic development for the downtrodden in recent years. In the past, the people involved in this traditional profession used to receive their reward only in kind and not in cash. But at present, they prefer payment in cash. This has brought commendable, considerable change and progress in their lifestyle and living standard. It is a pleasant thing to note that the young and educated members of their family are showing keen interest in participating and continuing this ancient ritual tradition actively. This is really the positive side of the Bhoota cult, and it's a welcome sign too.